One of my first memories of cooking when I was young was helping my father make and roll meatballs to add to a huge pot of simmering tomato sauce on a Sunday. It was the perfect thing to make on a cold New England winter day, as it was a big project from the trip to the butcher for just the right sausages and meat, to the slicing, dicing, rolling and frying. It took all day as the sauce simmered for hours allowing the meatballs, sausages, pork and chunks of pepperoni (my father’s specialty) to impart their flavors. I recall sneaking tastes by dunking hunks of bread into the sauce and noticed how the flavors developed as the hours went by and the sauce reduced. It was always a family favorite, which continues to this day with my nephews and nieces.
With Christmas being a bit different this year due to the pandemic, I was a little stuck on what to get my Chicago nephews, as my usual tradition is an experience such as Celtics at Bulls, Bruins at Blackhawks, theater, etc. With those not options at the moment I asked my sister in law, Julia, for ideas, and she suggested that in keeping with the experience theme that I invite each of the boys to spend a day in my kitchen for some one on one time to cook with me. Well, that was easy! I did find some super cool Vans in a Chicago motif for something to open that were a huge hit, so I wasn’t sure the “Day in Ktina’s Kitchen” was going to be too exciting, especially since it meant they were going to have to work. I was surprised and delighted when their reaction was “that’s awesome” when I told them to pick a day to cook their favorite dish with me. First up was Joe, my godson, and it was no surprise that his response to what he would like to cook was “Spaghetti and Meatballs please”. What might have been a surprise was the amount of work that was in store.
Just as my father did, I headed up to my favorite butcher, Paulina Meat Market to purchase the meat: ground beef, ground veal, ground pork, hot and mild Italian sausages and pork chops. Next was Eataly to get the tomatoes, cheese and spaghetti and I was ready. First up was to make the sauce and get it simmering so the flavors could begin to develop while we prepared the meat. Sausages and pork chops were grilled (less mess) and then added to the sauce. Next up the main event, meatballs. It’s a messy, time consuming job with all of the chopping, so I asked Joe if he understood why I make so much, to which he nodded and said “because it’s a lot work” – smart kid!
Once the meatballs were browned, we realized there was not going to be enough room in our pots, so we transferred some sauce to a third pot and added the meatballs. All we had to do was stir it occasionally to make sure nothing was sticking to the bottom and let it simmer away to reduce and let all the flavors develop. Our dinner guests, the rest of the Lynch clan, arrived at 4:00 and we were good to go. All we needed to do was cook the pasta and dinner was served!
While I have always called what my father and I make “sauce”, there are some that would say what we made is “Sunday Gravy”. I first heard of this when I was in college and a friend who hailed from North Providence, Rhode Island (the Italian neighborhood where even the lines in the streets are painted in red, white & green like the Italian flag) referred to the dish as “gravy”. Since I’m not Italian, I thought perhaps I was wrong to call it sauce, so I asked another friend, Mike Ricchio, a few years ago who emphatically answered “SAUCE”! I had apparently struck a nerve, as he and a friend had debated for years over this, so I thought I would delve a bit further. I referred to a cookbook that my good friend Marie (Borelli) Hatton had given me “The North End Union Italian Cookbook”, with the North End being the landmark Italian neighborhood of Boston. What I found was an entire chapter entitled “Sauces and Gravies” peacefully coexisting and there it was, “Sunday Gravy”. I called Marie and asked “Sauce or Gravy?”, to which she replied “SAUCE”! Hmmm, so where does the gravy thing come from. The cookbook indicates that it refers to the use of the meat drippings as the basis for the sauce. Since I make mine with olive oil and simply add the meat to the simmering sauce, it must be SAUCE, right? Either way, it’s DELICIOUS! A real crowd pleaser, it’s well worth the effort, and when you do, make A LOT so you have leftovers to share and freeze.
TOMATO SAUCE (Sunday Gravy)
- 2 Cups Onions, finely chopped (1 large onion)
- 3 TBSP minced Garlic (6 cloves)
- ¼ Cup Olive Oil pref Extra Virgin
- 1 1/2 tsp Crushed Red Pepper flakes
- 4 cans 28 oz Crushed San Marzano Tomatoes
- 2 cans 28 oz Tomoato Puree (Passata)
- 1 can 6 oz Tomato Paste
- 1 ½ Cups Red Wine
- 1 ½ Cups Water
- 2 TBSP Sugar
- 2 tsp Kosher Salt
- 1 tsp Black Pepper pref freshly ground
- 1 ½ TBSP Oregano dried
- 1 ½ TBSP Basil dried
- 2 Bay Leaves
- 2-3 Parmigiano Reggiano Cheese Rinds
- ¼ Cup fresh Basil leaves, chopped
- 1 recipe Meatballs approximately 18
- 8 Pork Chops boneless, center cut
- 8 Hot Italian Sausages
- 1 Coil Mild Italian Sausage or 8 individual sausages
- Place the largest stock pot you have over medium heat. (I use a 13 ¼ quart Le Creuset dutch oven.)
- Add the oil, onions and crushed red pepper flakes. (I like to add everything before the pan is hot and allow the onions to gradually begin to sweat as the oil heats.) Saute until the onions are translucent, stirring frequently. If the onions begin to brown, reduce the heat.
- Add the garlic and cook for 1-2 minutes until it is very aromatic (don’t allow the garlic to brown).
- Add the tomatoes, puree, paste, wine, water, sugar, spices and cheese rinds, stirring after each addition.
- Increase heat to medium-high and bring to a boil. When it is boiling, give a good stir and reduce heat to low. Partially cover the pot, leaving about an inch opening on one side and allow to simmer, stirring every 20-30 minutes.
- While the sauce is simmering, prepare the meat.
- Grill the sausages and pork chops on the grill or in a grill pan until evenly browned. They do not need to be cooked through, as they will finish cooking in the sauce.
- Prepare the meatballs (see separate recipe)
- Add the meats to the sauce as each is finished and while still hot. (You may need to divide the sauce into 2 pots to accommodate all the meat.)
- Allow the sauce and meat to simmer over low heat for 30 minutes and add the fresh Basil.
- Continue to simmer for at least another 30 minutes and up to 4 hours, stirring occasionally, making sure to scrape the bottom of the pan as the cheese rinds tend to stick. The longer you simmer, the more the flavors will develop. The sauce will bubble up a bit just after stirring, so beware of splatters.
- This is not difficult, but it is labor intensive and time consuming, so when I make it, I like to make a lot so that I can share and stock my freezer.
- My father adds pepperoni to his sauce – cut a stick in 2” chunks if you like.
- Depending on your butcher, both the Hot and Mild Italian sausage may come in coils. I like to use the individual sausages for the Hot and the coils for the Mild so that I can tell them apart in the sauce, as the ends are cut and they are curved.
- I usually end up making another batch of sauce to cover the meat and freeze in individual meal portions. I freeze extra sauce separately in Ziploc bags (double them so the don’t leak), which stack easily.
- If you don’t like Hot Italian sausage, use all mild. I like the flavorful blend of both. Chicken or Turkey sausage works equally well.
- At the end of the summer when my farmers market has bushels of San Marzano and Plum Tomatoes, I go the extra mile and make the crushed tomatoes from them. It is labor intensive to peel and seed all the tomatoes, but it really makes for a wonderful fresh flavor. You will still need to use the puree and paste.
- 2 pounds Ground Beef Chuck
- 1 pound Ground Veal **
- 1 pound Ground Pork
- 3 Hot Italian Sausages, remove from casings or 1 pound bulk sausage
- 1 Cup Onions finely chopped
- 2 TBSP Garlic finely minced
- ½ Cup Flat Leaf Parsley chopped
- ½ Cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano
- 4 Eggs
- 1 Cup Bread Crumbs preferably fresh
- 4 slices Bread crusts removed (use a good quality bread, such as a rustic Italian or Sour Dough, not seeded, you can use the same loaf for bread crumbs)
- ½ Cup Milk
- 1 tsp Kosher Salt & Black Pepper freshly ground
- ½ Cup Olive Oil it does not need to be Extra Virgin
- Preheat oven to 350*. Place 2 racks on the upper and lower thirds of the oven.
- Place bread slices in a shallow baking dish or pie plate. Heat the milk in the microwave for 30-45 seconds (until hot but not boiling) and pour over the bread.
- Place all of the meats in a very large bowl. Using your hands (I like to use disposable kitchen gloves) combine the meats until they are well blended.
- Add all remaining ingredients, crumbling the moistened bread so that there are not any large pieces.
- Mix together with your hands until well blended, making sure to scrape from the bottom to ensure all ingredients are well incorporated.
- Line a sheet pan or cookie sheet with parchment.
- Roll meat mixture into balls and place them on the parchment lined pan.
- Pour 1/4 cup oil into 2 rimmed sheet pans and place in the oven to allow the oil to heat for about 5-10 minutes.
- Place the meatballs on the sheet pans with the hot oil and return to the oven.
- Bake for about 15 minutes, until the meatballs are browned on the bottom. Turn the meatballs to the other side and then return to the oven, switching the position of the pans, and cook for another 10-15 minutes.
- Add the meatballs to the Tomato Sauce and simmer for at least 30 minutes and up to 2 hours to tenderize and absorb the flavors from the sauce.
- You may need to have your butcher grind the veal for you.
- To make fresh bread crumbs, simply toast 8 slices of the bread and grind in the dry container of a Vitamix or in a food processor.
- Along with the Sauce recipe, a lot of chopped garlic is needed (especially if you’re doubling it as I sometimes do), so I like to buy peeled garlic and pop it into my Cuisinart Mini-prep food processor to save time. You can also use a garlic press.
- I like to make larger 3” meatballs as I find they hold up better to freezing.
- It is not important that meatballs are cooked through, as they will finish cooking in the sauce.